Business meetings evoke their own booming business

The dictionary calls them the "coming together of persons or things; a point of contact or intersection." Some administrators call them a scourge. Others see them as a necessary evil.

But to the people in the business -- more and more -- they mean big money. They are meetings.

The meeting planning industry is jumping; everyone seems to agree on that. Mel Hosansky, editor in chief of Meetings & Conventions magazine, estimates that it is now about a $20 billion business. He cites the latest marketing report done by his magazine, which shows a 70 to 80 percent growth in meetings expenditures between 1973-74 and 1979.

Meeting planners across the country are enjoying the sensation of being in demand --and every month there are more of them to savor the feeling.Meeting Planners International, an Ohio-based association for professional planners, has seen its membership leap from 150 at its inception in 1972 to 35,000 at last count. MPI executive Jimm Horvath figures it gains about 70 new members a month.

Why, at a time when the national economy has been weak at the knees and costs of all kinds are soaring, would companies be pouring money into meetings?

There are a number of answer. Some in the field say the shaky economy and rising travel costs actually work in favor of the meeting-planning business. Because corporate corners are being cut closer to the quick, "cost effectiveness" is now a phrase on the tip of every manager's tongue. And the more important it is to have "cost effective" meetings, the more invaluable becomes the meeting planner.

Others cite a need for more training. Slipping US productivity, plus the example of Japanese superefficiency, has heightened corporate interest in getting the most out of every employee. Also, competition is increasingly stiff for the well-trained middle- and upper-level managers. Companies make up for the deficiency by sinking more time and money into training their own executives --and training means meetings and seminars.

The meeting business has also gotten boosts from:

* The information explosion. With more information to disseminate, meetings have become longer and more numerous.

* Greater availability of meeting facilities and conference centers.

* The wide-body jet aircraft, which allow large groups to travel together.

Richard Hildreth remembers a day when meeting planning was a very different thing. At present, Dr. Hildreth is chairman of the Hospitality, Meeting, Travel Administration Department at Metropolitan State College in Denver, which in 1977 became the first school to offer a bachelor's degree in meetings planning. He also has his own meeting planning business, Meetings Inc.

"When I started in the business in 1955," he remembers, "I can think how simple it was. Now, you have to know computers, accounting, marketing, law, teleconferencing [a meeting of separated parties through television or other modern technology]. When it comes to meeting planning, he says, companies today "are after their money's worth."

Technological innovations have also added a dizzying new dimension to the field. Will satellite links and other sophisticated communications devices someday eliminate a need for meetings? No way, says Dianne Dvorin, president and director of MediaSense, a group devoted to designing, planning, and producing teleconference links.

"It's not like everyone's going to stop traveling and just sit in their cubbyholes," she says. Rather, she explains, "Technology makes it possible to choose among a variety of meeting formats."

These formats include visual conferencing (the transmission of images), audio conferencing (the transmission of voices), and computer conferencing (the transmission of information), or an endless number of combinations of and variations on the above.

Dr. Hildreth believes that teleconferencing will become more and more important as air fares continue to soar. He expects to see less long-distance travel for business executives and more regional meetings linked to one another or to a central point through technology. But, he feels, that won't change the need for meetings.

Often, he says, the "informal chat" after the meeting may be as important, or even more important, than the meeting itself. "Technology," he says , "can never replace that."

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